Dead Daddies and White Castles

This essay will have a dead daddy in it. There will be some other stuff in here, but it will mainly be about a dead daddy (mine). There are some who want to know the details. I am not one of those people. But I’m also not generally a reader of dead daddy stories. Add to that list, chronicles of dying relatives of any kind, memories about bad mommies, and random musings on the sanctity of Grandmomma’s cooking. But this is just my preference, and I like mustard on my French fries, so who am I to judge? But for those who can read these stories of dead and dying loved ones, of failed cobblers, of bad parenting, and don’t grow uncomfortable with the level of intimacy they require, who don’t squirm at the level of self-aggrandizing they inherently evoke, who don’t roll their eyes and think, “You and everyone else…”, I’ll give the following details. My father was sixty-two. [1] My father died at home in, and because of, his sleep. [2] My father lived by himself. My father was slightly overweight. My father liked a stiff drink. My father had just recently bought a bike. My father loved, in the following debatable order, the following things: himself (large break), me, his ex-wife (his second), [3] his other daughter, her children, the memory of his grandmother, female attention (which may or may not have included sex), Detroit, White Castle, poker, my mother (his first wife), his twenty-eight years as a cop, the Washington Redskins, a nice dark liquor, the Temptations, The Godfather, a good book. I won’t write about the ongoing legal battle between me and his second wife over his “estate”—basically a pair of socks and a Charles Mann autograph—because that’s even more boring and predictable than dead daddy stories. I won’t write about any of the other women in his life, including my mother and his other daughter (who was born when I was thirteen, and who I didn’t know existed until I was twenty-one). I won’t write about the team that plays football in Washington, because they really don’t play in Washington and they shouldn’t keep that name, and that’s just one of the areas where my father and I saw things very differently. But I will write about White Castle and my dead father, and if you read this as an apology of sorts, it is, but maybe not for what you think.

*     *     *

I won’t write about the ongoing legal battle between me and his second wife over his “estate”—basically a pair of socks and a Charles Mann autograph—because that’s even more boring and predictable than dead daddy stories.

There is a picture. [5]  In the picture, my father has his head braided into five cornrows. He is wearing a dark green dashiki that my mother made for him. My mother braided his hair. The image of what that entailed—he sitting between her legs, she parting his hair and oiling his scalp—embarrasses me. In one hand, he holds a long barrel rifle. In his other arm, he is holding me as a baby. The way he holds the rifle, the gun angles across his body. I have my tiny hand on the wooden barrel of the gun. My father is wearing sunglasses. His look says, “I will defend to the death, this baby in my arm.” The picture says, “I am willing to bleed for the revolution, so that this little girl will have a better world.” The gun says, “You had until April 4th to pull it together. Now, it’s a demand…”  I could say that I’m looking at the camera as if to say, “I was born in the Congo…” while djembes beat in the background. I could say that you look at the me in the picture and know that if I could talk I would say, “It is the right of the people to alter or to abolish this destructive government, Daddy, and institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to affect my safety— actually, our collective safety and happiness.”  But, I’m a baby, so mostly I just look like I’m ready for a nap.

*     *     *

My mother, who took the picture, says of it now, “We were always being so dramatic then. Like raising baby Kunta to the night sky. My God, I can’t tell you how many times that picture was reenacted.” My mother is not prone to high levels of sentimentality. Both my father and I are.

*     *     *

Or is it “were”? Or is it “I am” and “He was”? And how do you write that sentence? “It doesn’t matter,” I would tell my students, “it’s a fragment anyway.”

*     *     *

The closest White Castle to where my father lived is in Tom’s River, which according to MapQuest is about eighty-nine miles away. There is really nothing exciting in Tom’s River. We—my father, mother, and I—and later, just my father and I, have driven to Tom’s River with no other expressed purpose but to get a sack. I have not eaten red meat in more than sixteen years.

*     *     *

My father became a cop because we moved to Bridgeton, New Jersey, and he needed a job, and somehow his fifteen-year-old charge for trying to bring seventeen stolen guns [6] from New York City to Detroit in a stolen car hadn’t shown up on his background check. At my Daddy’s repast, a man wearing a gold tooth and a brown silk pantsuit sat next to me. “Your father was always a soldier. Extra food tray. Some more time on the phone. Once he saw me on the outside, at a store, and said, ‘I think I have some mail for you.’ He did what he could. Unlike—” and here he lowered his voice and nodded his head towards the table of cops eating behind us, “some of these other motherfuckers who get a badge and forget they niggahs too.”

*     *     *

My father and I hated that word. Whenever I argued that the name of the team playing in Fed Ex stadium was just as bad, my father would only sigh. My mother, when admonished about saying the word replied, “Context is everything, ‘Keng.”

*     *     *

The first White Castle opened in Detroit in 1929. When both my father and I were growing up, there were more White Castles in Motown than Burger Kings, Wendy’s and even McDonald’s. The basic design of White Castle, white sparkling tile and shiny spotless chrome, has stayed mostly the same over the store’s one-hundred-year history. White Castles (popular opinion be damned) were always so clean that when I was a little girl, walking into them on a sunny days almost hurt my eyes.

*     *     *

This is coincidence, but growing up, both of the bathrooms in our houses were predominately white tile. And this reminds me of the time, not too long after a school lesson on Sir Alexander Fleming, that I looked in our medicine cabinet and saw a prescription bottle for penicillin.

*     *     *

The following things, in the following order, make me cry for months afterwards: the chewing gum commercial when the woman goes to college with a box filled with folded wrappers, seeing a man holding his baby in an Ergo, hearing the Temptations play on Muzak, getting pulled over for not coming to a complete stop, the Extra chewing gum commercial when the woman goes to college with a shoebox filled with folded gum wrapper birds that had been lovingly folded for her by her father over the years.

*     *     *

My father had, by my accounts, sex with over twenty women during the time he was married to my mother. This is a surprisingly accurate guess considering that I was a child for most of my parents’ marriage. When, days after his funeral, I share my tally with my mother, she says, “Well, that’s probably a very conservative estimate.” But I said this isn’t about my mother and it isn’t.

*     *     *

My father’s favorite song was “Papa was a Rolling Stone.” [7]

*     *     *

It is five months after my father died in and because of his sleep, not because of his diet, and this man who loves me and whom my father liked, has never had a White Castle. So we drive to a White Castle, and I take great pains to explain to him how to order. No ketchup. At least four. A mixture of both cheese and plain. He orders two, plain. He slides the burger out of the thin cardboard box and looks at it, turning it around to inspect it. He peels off the bottom bun, and then (and this pains me to write), scrapes off the soggy part of the bun where the burger’s juices have soaked through. He wipes his finger on a napkin, spreading remnants of burger and bun onto the sheet. He then neatly folds over the napkin. I am watching all of this through the lens of my phone. I had been poised to take a picture of him eating his first White Castle. And somehow, I still click as he takes a bite. His face is pained, as if I have forced him to eat cuy or tripe or hog maws. He swallows painfully and then says, “Well, give me a Wendy’s any day.”

*     *     *

This man, who I think loves me, was liked by my father because of a shared love of 1970s American History. My father liked this man, despite the fact that this man is white. My father liked this man, who gave him a copy of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. My father liked this man, despite the fact that this man does not gamble. This man really does not drink. This man, I know deeply, purely, completely, would never cheat. He is as aghast at infidelity as I once was. His parents have recently celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary. But a week later, I’m looking at the picture of him eating his first slider and I know I’m eventually going to delete it, just as now I’m deleting text messages from another man I met six months before I started dating this man. And I hear David Byrne in my head and I think, “My God, what have I done…”

*     *     *

I think I love the following things, in the following order: my mother, myself, my father (large break), my best friend who lives in Detroit, the memory of my dead grandmothers, male attention (which may or may not include sex), White Castle…

I think I love the following things, in the following order: my mother, myself, my father (large break), my best friend who lives in Detroit, the memory of my dead grandmothers, male attention (which may or may not include sex), White Castle, Detroit, a nice glass of wine, a good book, The Godfather.

I know I don’t love the following things as much as I should: the man who doesn’t like White Castle, my father’s family, New Jersey, police officers.

*     *     *

When my father graduated from the Trenton Police Academy, we went to White Castle for his graduation dinner. This probably isn’t important, but I wanted to mention it anyway.

*     *     *

In what was probably my mother’s last stand against “the man,” she didn’t seek child support from my father when we moved out. (Perhaps, she should have. At that point, my father had already been in the system for six years.) The arrangement was that she wouldn’t get the courts involved, provided that my parents would alternate on paying for my college tuition. When my second semester arrived and it became time for my father to pay, he wasn’t able to pay. Somehow (credit cards, overtime, loans) my mother was able to get the tuition. In the fall, my father again was unable to pay his portion. I had to come home, to Bridgeton, for two years.

*     *     *

During that first summer home, my father came over to show me a brand new truck he and Madame Mastodon had just purchased. It was one of the Big Three’s finest—white, all chrome with custom details. I would like to say that I reasonably shared my disappointment with my father; that I calmly asked how he could afford a truck, yet, could ignore the bills from my university’s bursar’s office. But I didn’t. I cried, I yelled. I cursed. I slammed the door. I did not speak to my father for seven years.

*     *     *

In dead daddy stories, someone inevitably wishes they hadn’t said this or wishes they hadn’t done that. But, I’m not one of those people.

*     *     *

In dead daddy stories, someone inevitably wishes they hadn’t said this or wishes they hadn’t done that. But, I’m not one of those people.

So, yeah, this isn’t really about White Castle. But it should be. Those perfect little burgers, made square so that they can fit more on the grill. Those five holes in the center so that the meat melts, melts in your mouth. Those crispy, crinkly, crunchy fries. And the Coke. My God, the Coca-Cola.

*     *     *

Six months later, my closest friend, my friend who lives in Detroit, told me that White Castle was selling turkey sliders. And since I gave up red meat, when I go—nay, went—to White Castle with my dad, I’d have to order chicken (which is NOT the same thing). She called me, whispering on the phone from underneath her cubicle. She knew what hearing that news would mean to me. The next Saturday, after getting her call, I went to three White Castles in upstate New Jersey, with employees at each store looking blankly at me when I asked for turkey burgers. A year earlier, this would have been the perfect joke to play on me. Seven months earlier, I would have laughed when I went to my fourth White Castle, this time near Penn Station, and again, was met with confused faces when I placed my order. Four turkey burgers, no ketchup, fries, a Coke.

No turkey, the counter woman said to me twice because I just stood there, looking at her after she had said it the first time. She looked to her coworker as if maybe her English wasn’t getting the message across. I ordered fries, Coke, two chicken sandwiches, and walked to a table.

And I’m sitting there, in a booth, in a White Castle, and I’m thinking about my daddy. And for some reason, I remember something I had forgotten about, the way that it happens in dead daddy stories.

My father and I are at a beach, a lake, really, and he is trying to teach me to swim. And he promises me if I can hold my breath, if I try to swim just a bit, he’ll take me over to a sandbar that exists on the other side. And because my father knows me and because my father knows that I have never seen a sandbar, and because my father knows that in just the few minutes since he’s made that offer, I’ve imagined the sandbar to be much more than a patch of sand, he knows how much of an incentive that offer was. And so I try to swim much harder than I had been trying earlier. I make it halfway towards him where he stood, marking my distance. After I rest for a bit, he tells me to hop on his back and then my father dives in and swims towards the sandbar. I am scared. I am excited. I hold onto his neck too tightly, and at times he says to me, “Not so tight, Pooh.” But he keeps swimming, he keeps swimming.

I’m suddenly one of those people crying in public. I’m furiously wiping my eyes with a napkin someone left on the table. And I know the poor girl at the counter is thinking that I’m unstable or I’m taking their lack of turkey really hard. And as my number is called, as they tell me my order is ready, I’m crying in a booth in a White Castle because it hits me, really hits me. In dead daddy stories, fathers can be a lot of things. But the one thing they can’t ever be is alive.

 

Author’s Notes:

[1] The average life expectancy for black males in the United States is 71.8. This is about five years shorter than the expected age of death for white men, seven years shorter than the expectancy of black women and about ten years less than that of white women.

[2] His official cause of death was listed as sleep apnea. Who knew?

[3] The order of the next two things in his list is debatable. For the years 1998-2013, his ex-wife—the hideous succubus in the form of Mrs. Snufflelupagus [4] who he was married to during that time—might be third in this list.  For the years 1971-1987, my mother would have been third, and for a brief period, second in the list.

[4]  This is being unkind to Mrs. Snufflelupagus, who besides being a perfectly lovely beast, had the most exquisite eyelashes that were years ahead of the trend.

[5] In dead daddy stories, there is always a picture.

[6] “They must arm themselves as best they can (rifles, revolvers, bombs, knives, knuckle-dusters, sticks, rags soaked in kerosene for starting fires, ropes or rope ladders, shovels for building barricades, pyroxylin cartridges, barbed wire, nails [against cavalry], etc., etc.). Under no circumstances should they wait for help from other sources, from above, from the outside; they must procure everything themselves.” –Lenin “Sometimes you have to pick up the gun, to put down the gun.” –Malcolm X

[7] I cannot make this shit up.

 

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Special Guest Judge, Ana Maria Spagna, on “Dead Daddies and White Castles”:

“There is so much to admire in this essay: the lively voice, the powerful imagery (the rifle, the sunglasses, the cornrows, the soggy White Castle bun), the strong sense of context, the subtle humor, and most of all the devastating self-awareness of the narrator.”

Ana Maria Spagna is the author of six nonfiction books including Reclaimers and Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize.

 

N’kenge Feagin is a Philadelphia-based, Detroit-born, Jersey-raised writer who spent most of her adult life living in Washington, DC. She’s been an adjunct, state park janitor, Girl 6, bartender, program coordinator, hostess, fugitive, waitress, comedy scriptwriter, nonprofit supervisor, restaurant manager, and to her five-year-old relatives, “The Best Cousin EVERRR.”